Lost Gem: Charles Stepney’s genius and Minnie Riperton’s voice took Rotary Connection to musical heaven

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    The late Charles Stepney is having a moment. It seems like everyone is talking about this groundbreaking producer who died 46 years ago at the too young age of 45. Stepney has been the subject of profiles in The New York Times and The Guardian. Step on Step, a compilation of Stepney demos of songs such as “That’s The Way of the World” that was uncovered by his three daughters received a glowing review on Pitchfork. Stepney’s music turned up in television series like “Atlanta,” films such as Jordan Peele’s “Us” and has been sampled by rappers for years.

    The late Charles Stepney is having a moment. It seems like everyone is talking about this groundbreaking producer who died 46 years ago at the too young age of 45. Stepney has been the subject of profiles in The New York Times and The Guardian. Step on Step, a compilation of Stepney demos of songs such as “That’s The Way of the World” that was uncovered by his three daughters received a glowing review on Pitchfork. Stepney’s music turned up in television series like “Atlanta,” films such as Jordan Peele’s “Us” and has been sampled by rappers for years.

    “Memory Band,” a song Stepney produced for Rotary Connection was famously sampled in the A Tribe Called Quest hit song “Bonita Applebum.” Actress Maya Rudolph, daughter of Rotary Connection members Minnie Riperton and Richard Rudolph quipped that the sample helped pay for her college education.

    Ironically, Stepney was thinking about selling his vibraphone and becoming a shoe salesman or bookkeeper when he got a call from Phil Wright, an arranger at Chess Records, asking him to play for a recording session. Chess kept calling him for recording work and eventually he was asked to work with Rotary Connection.

    That started a decade long career that was notable for being prolific and eclectic. In addition to Rotary Connection, Stepney worked with The Dells, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Ramsey Lewis, Riperton, The Emotions, Earth Wind and Fire, just to name a few. Stepney died a few hours after a phone conversation with Maurice White.

    The suits at Chess wanted Rotary Connection to be its answer to the psychedelic rock sound being made by Bay Area bands like Jefferson Airplane. And man, did Stepney deliver. Rotary Connection’s riveting remake of “Respect” stands as an example Stepney’s creativity. In Otis Redding’s hands “Respect” was an example of Memphis soul. Aretha Franklin remade “Respect” and transformed the tune into a funky anthem of Black and female liberation.

    Rotary Connection’s remake is a cinematic wall of sound. The arrangement comes at the senses, and Riperton’s vocal manages to cut through it all. She is compelling on this track. Check out Rotary Connection’s great reimagination of “Respect” here.

    By Howard Dukes

     
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